Election night 2010 was a smashing success for congressional Republicans. In a reversal of fortunes after Democrat Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory, the GOP recaptured control of the House of Representatives after having lost it to the Democrats four years earlier.
On the night of their triumph, Ohio Congressman and soon-to-be Speaker of the House John Boehner said, “It’s the president who sets the agenda for our government.”
Boehner was neither betraying his party nor caving in to the wishes of the Democratic president, a fact well demonstrated by the inter-branch gridlock to come.
Instead, he was acknowledging what has become the accepted standard for presidential-congressional relations in the modern era: that the president is legislator-in-chief.
Many past presidents have faced divided party control between the two elective branches, including Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushes. While the likelihood of presidential success in Congress nosedives at such times — for Obama, the rate at which Congress voted with his preferences was almost 97 percent in 2009 and almost 86 percent in 2010, dropping to 57 percent in 2011 — Congress still expects a menu of presidential preferences to help guide its agenda.
Compare this with a report Congress issued in 1817 in response to President James Monroe’s threat to veto a bill concerning internal improvements: It warned darkly that this veto threat meant that “the Presidential veto would acquire a force unknown to the Constitution, and the legislative body would be shorn of its powers from a want of confidence in its strength.” In the eight years of his popular presidency, Monroe vetoed exactly one bill.
Or take Sen. Daniel Webster’s vehement exception to a suggestion that President Andrew Jackson should be consulted on the drafting of legislation in order to avoid a possible later veto. Such a step, Webster thundered, “proceeds to claim for the President, not the power of approval, but the primary power, the power of originating laws.” Another of the great legislators of the 19th century, Henry Clay, condemned at length the very idea that presidents should be consulted about legislation before it was ready to send to them for signature or veto. Such prior consultation, Clay warned, was “totally new … and utterly contrary to the theory of the Government.”
Some presidents of the time shared this belief. In his inaugural address, President William Henry Harrison also rejected any idea that Congress should consult with the president first on the wisdom of legislation as a way to avoid a veto. “To assist or control Congress in its ordinary legislation could not, I conceive, have been the motive for conferring the veto power on the President.”
Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, provoked congressional fury for using his veto power to block popular legislation — not 50 times, but exactly 10 times in his four-year term. After Tyler’s second veto, Clay complained of Tyler’s “constant encroaching … on the Legislative authority.” After his third veto, one congressman’s extended harangue included a comparison of Tyler to “Judas Iscariot, who sold his Master for thirty pieces of silver. He was both a traitor and an ingrate. Thus the parallel between him and the President starts fair; but to assert that it continues throughout, would be doing injustice to the memory of Judas, who repented, returned the money, and hung himself.”
The crescendo of anger over Tyler’s vetoes culminated in a vote, unsuccessful, on articles of impeachment. Two of the counts included allegations of abusive veto use. Ironically, much of the anger over the vetoes stemmed from the very fact that Tyler, along with many at the time, felt it inappropriate for the president to negotiate with Congress over legislative language before it reached the president’s desk.
If those who governed early in our history possessed the most direct knowledge of the intent of the Constitution’s Framers regarding executive-legislative relations, then we must congratulate their political descendants for their wisdom in departing from such a narrow and wooden view.
The president’s far greater involvement in legislative matters in the last century is a sign of effective governance and political vigor. Sadly, the hyper-gridlock of the last few years threatens a throwback to unwelcome past dysfunction.
• Robert J. Spitzer, Ph.D., is Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the political science department at SUNY Cortland, and is the author of several books on the presidency, including “President and Congress” and “The Presidential Veto.”